After three decades of playing bad guys and mercenary-heroes in movies both big and small, Danny Trejo recently slipped into a new role, one that doesn’t require any sucker punches or fake blood splatters. For the last year and a half, the star of the Machete franchise has played the part of the expansion-minded restaurateur, and it suits him well. Trejo and his partners Ash Shah and Jeff Georgino have opened two taquerias, a food truck, and a doughnut shop in the Los Angeles area, all of which feature the actor’s familiar face plastered all over the place. As Anthony Bourdain recently noted, people love Danny Trejo, and watching the actor work the room at one of his restaurants, it’s clear that he loves his fans, too.
Trejo’s life wasn’t always so rosy. As a young man growing up in Los Angeles, he got involved with crime and wound up in a series of California state prisons, including Soledad, where he spent time in solitary confinement. After leaving prison in 1969, Trejo connected with AA and Narcotics Anonymous, and decided to devote his life to youth drug counseling. While working with a young actor on a movie set in 1985, he got pulled on camera as an extra, and thus, his career as an actor was born. His IMDB page currently lists 339 acting credits.
Eater recently chatted with the movie star about why, in his early seventies, he decided to jump into the restaurant game.
How does it feel to be a newly-minted restaurateur?
Danny Trejo: Yeah, restaurateur. I like that.
Why did you get into restaurants?
You know what? It’s a secret. My mom was an unbelievable cook when she was alive. In a Latino family, in a Mexican family, at the first of the month, you had great meals. But toward the end of the month, you were inventing stuff. And she would make these meals and I’d say, “Mom what is this?” And she’d say, “I mixed it, just eat it.” But it was delicious. So I always joked with her, “Mom, we’ve got to start a restaurant.” Now my dad, he was kind of the Mexican Archie Bunker — this was in the ’50s. So every time we’d talk about a restaurant, he would say, “Hey, I’ve got a kitchen right there, okay? You just go ahead, I’ll get you a new refrigerator.” So we’d just laugh and every time we wanted to piss him off, we’d just start talking about a menu.
After she passed away, I was doing a film called Bad Ass with Craig Moss, he was the director. One of the producers was a guy named Ash Shah, and he noticed that I loved eating good food, and he said, “Danny why don’t you open a restaurant?” And, jokingly, I said, “Trejo’s tacos.” And then we did Badass, Badass 2, and Badass 3, all directed by Craig Moss — I’m getting ready to do another film with him called Social Security. And after we did Badass on the Bayou, Ash came to me with a business plan, and it was the first business plan that somebody brought me where I didn’t have to put up $500,000. I took it to my agent Gloria Hinojosa, and Mari Matekel, my secretary — because behind every good man there’s got to be a couple of good women, or you’re dead. And they kinda said, “Wow you can’t lose. This is a great business investment.”
So first we opened Trejo’s Tacos, and that is doing so well. Ash opened Trejo’s Cantina, here on Cahuenga. Then we got a food truck and we opened Trejo’s Donuts on Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland, and all three of them are doing well. So we just opened a Trejo’s Cantina in Pasadena, right next to the Pasadena Playhouse, and a lot of people really love it.
To open a successful restaurant... a lot of celebrities have tried it, and they have this ego that tells them, “Just because my name’s on it, it’s gonna do good.” Well everyone will come to see that celebrity the first time, but if the food’s not good, they’re not coming back — I don’t care what your name is. Our food is delicious. I eat here all the time and I bring my friends in and they give me a synopsis of what they thought.
Was it a conscious decision to open restaurants focusing on two quintessential Los Angeles foods, doughnuts and tacos?
You know, there was a really famous spot called Donut Time. It was on the corner of Highland and Santa Monica Boulevard, and it was a very seedy place. It came up for sale, and Ash and my partners and I said, “Hey, we can’t lose.” So we thought, “How can we make this a better building? Paint it bright pink, right?” We are killing it on the doughnuts. And besides that, I love the police.
When you became rich and famous, did your taste in food change at all?
No, I’ve always loved good food. I don’t care what it is. I used to eat at a place called Musso & Frank’s, I’ve been there forever, and I love that restaurant still. And then there’s the Pantry down on Ninth and Figueroa. You go to Musso & Frank’s to dine, and you go to The Pantry to eat. So what we tried to do here is combine it — you can come here to eat, or you can come here to dine. And the thing is about us is that a lot of families come here because the menu is so diverse. We have gluten-free, vegan, and regular food. It’s funny, I’ve been working with autistic children, and doctors have said that children with autism don’t do well with gluten, so we said, “Let’s go gluten-free.” I’ve had a mom cry who said, “My whole family can eat here, because we don’t have to make three different meals at home.”
At Eater HQ, we talk a lot about how people need to get comfortable paying more money for good food. At Trejo’s Cantina, you serve some tacos that are six dollars, which is more than tacos cost at a lot of local taquerias. Do you get any pushback for that?
No. People know that everything is healthy. It’s almost like the difference between somebody who wants kosher food. It’s better food; that’s all there is to it. Everything here is healthy, but yet it’s not a “health food” restaurant. We have great meat and great chicken. All our chickens have never been in the cell, I mean, the cage.
[Laughing] No, they all eat crap.
You’ve always been super candid about your sobriety. How many years have you been sober now? Around 50?
I got 48. My son just celebrated three years of sobriety. My son and daughter actually really inspire me. My daughter’s going on four years. My son’s just celebrated three years. And in just a short time, my son has already produced and directed a movie called China Test Girls, and he’s getting ready to do another one. And I say, “Wow. I’m 73 years old. These kids just started and look at them, they’re doing great.”
Do you ever worry that, as a sober person, having a bar at your restaurant might send the wrong message?
No. One thing I always say is that I’m not against alcohol. I’m afflicted with a disease of alcoholism, which means that I have an allergy of the body coupled with an obsession of the mind. So I can’t drink alcohol, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. I have a lot of friends who can actually drink socially. I’ve got friends who, if they have two beers, they say, “I’m going to leave my car and call Uber.” I used to drive dead drunk. So there are people who can drink responsibly, and there are people who can’t.
You’ve got an ambitious expansion plan — where do you want to go next?
Well, next we’re going to do a restaurant in USC village. My dream is to put a big restaurant in the new Rams stadium.
What about Vegas or New York?
We were thinking about two in Vegas, two in San Antonio, and two in New York, eventually. People don’t understand that restaurants need good locations, but you need foot traffic. And the food’s got to be delicious.
When I saw your face on this doughnut box, I immediately thought about Colonel Sanders. Do you have any role models in the restaurant world?
I think what we had to do is figure out what’s catchy. I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve signed so many of these boxes — I’ll be at a gas station and someone will come up with one of these boxes. It’s all kind of advertising.
Are people surprised to find you in your restaurants?
Oh yeah, all the time. People say, “What are you doing?” And I say, “What are you talking about?”
Do you have a favorite doughnut?
My favorite doughnut is the pineapple fritter. It literally blows up in your mouth — it’s unbelievable. The problem with it is that after you eat one, the next day you crave another, and by the third one, you’re down on Fifth and Main begging for quarters [laughing].
Do you think opening restaurants will slow down your acting career?
No, I gotta eat. So I come here and, you know, we’ll cater the movies I do if they’re in LA, so it all ties in. My advice if anyone wants to open a restaurant is to call Ash Shah and Jeff Georgino. They’re great.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.